Nishi Side Story

By Rev. Jon Turner

One night, when I was in the seventh grade, there was nothing on television to watch except for a movie called West Side Story. I didn’t know what caught my attention but I began to watch it. I quickly got caught up in the story about an Italian boy named Tony who fails in love with a Puerto Rican girl named Maria. Tony and Maria were caught between two rival gangs in New York City. The Jets were the Italian gang and the Sharks were the Puerto Rican gang. People from rival gangs usually do not fall in love with each other.

West Side Story is not just a love story. There are also knife fights and gang wars so the movie appealed to both seventh grade girls and seventh grade boys. The music is not corny or too romantic. Leonard Bernstein’s score sounded like jazz mixed with the sounds of very early rock and roll. The lyrics by Stephen Sondheim were exceptionally wonderful.

When I went to school the next day I was surprised to find that everyone was talking about West Side Story. It seems that we had all watched it the night before. We were all talking about which gang we would want to be in and which song we liked best.  We all liked different songs but I think we all knew that the song that captured the essence of the movie was the song Maria that was sung by Tony.

This song was about the name Maria and how by just saying it Tony was one with the character Maria in his both his heart and mind. Tony sang that the name Maria was

“the most beautiful sound I ever heard”

and that it was

“all the beautiful sounds of the world in a single word Maria”.

He also sang

“I'll never stop saying Maria.

The most beautiful sound I ever heard Maria.”

“Say it loud and there's music playing.

Say it soft and it's almost like praying.”

The song seemed almost spiritual in nature.

It wasn’t until much later that I discovered that West Side Story was really a modern adaptation of Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare. If I had known that at the time I am sure I would not have watched the movie. William Shakespeare is the most famous writer in the history of the English language but he is also the most famous writer that hardly anyone ever reads – especially seventh grade boys. To a seventh grade boy the word Shakespeare is synonymous with boring.

I am sure there are purists who look down on the movie West Side Story since the author is no Shakespeare and Leonard Bernstein is no Beethoven. West Side Story is no Romeo and Juliet. But in many ways the movie West Side Story is more relatable than the play Romeo and Juliet. Watching the movie is much more accessible than watching the play. Anyone can listen to the everyday language of the movie but very few can hear the prose of the play. The movie also encourages countless people to pursue Shakespeare who would never have done so without seeing the movie first. This also increases the importance of the movie beyond that of the play. I remember in college that I was no longer put off by Shakespeare since I liked West Side Story so much as a boy.

In Shin Buddhism, we can find parallels between West Side Story and the name Maria with the Larger Sutra and the name Namuamidabutsu. Many Buddhist sutras can be challenging to read. Some can only be understood by those with a background in Buddhist studies. I don’t think any seventh grade boy could read these types of sutras and get anything out of them. But a seventh grade boy can easily follow the telling of the story in the Larger Sutra.

The Larger Sutra is the story of a king who meets a teacher. This teacher is so dynamic that the king is compelled to renounce his thrown in order to become a true student. The student vows to become a teacher one day just like his teacher. Over time the student becomes known by the name Namuamidabutsu. Saying the name Namuamidabutsu makes us one with Buddhahood in our heart and mind just as saying the name Maria made Tony one with Maria in his heart and mind. In fact, Tony is compelled to say Maria just as we are compelled to say Namuamidabutsu.

The Larger Sutra is a very accessible story and it is one of the very few sutras that not only describes awakening to true reality in our everyday lives but it also describes the process of how one accomplishes this as an ordinary person. The former being the effect and the latter being the cause. Just as the name Maria captures the true intent of West Side Story so too does the name Namuamidabutsu capture the true intent of the Larger Sutra and of the spirit Buddhism itself.

In gassho,

Rev. Jon Turner